A World Winder exclusive by guest blogger Nathan Green.
This is it. This is my chance. With my heart beating in my ears like some sort of Andean drum, I risk certain death and bravely make like the proverbial chicken and cross the road. OK. Maybe this is a little over dramatic but successfully getting from one side of the road to the other in La Paz is no mean feat. In fact, most encounters with the transport system can leave the uninitiated in a foul mood, if not spitting feathers.
Enough of the bad chicken gags, but why is this? What’s so unusual about the traffic in La Paz? And how can you prepare for using it?
Transportation options for La Paz Bolivia
Getting around the Bolivian capital is relatively easy if you know what you’re doing and can even be fun. It’s a bustling city with plenty of Pacenas (people from La Paz) going from A to B. But if you’re not a local how can you do as the locals do?
About 90% of the traffic on the roads is there to be flagged-down so you won’t be short of a lift in one form or another. Of these, there are 4 different types. In roughly decreasing order of cost and comfort these are: our old friend the taxi, trufi, micro and autobus.
Taxis in La Paz
First off, the taxis in La Paz are relatively expensive compared with taking a trufi, autobus or micro but for travellers from Europe and the United States they are still a cheap option so they won’t break the bank but expect a “gringo tax” to be included for tourists. And there are plenty of taxis so you won’t have to wait very long before flagging one down. The taxis don’t have meters so make sure to confirm the price before you set-off.
Trufis in La Paz
Not to be confused with taxis, trufis are half-taxi-half-bus. They’re regular cars just like a taxi but have a home-made card jammed in the driver’s window listing the main places on the route. This looks a bit like a ransom note made from newspaper clippings and can be hard to read from a distance. Trufis take up to 5 passengers which means 2 people are crammed into the front passenger seat. There’s no concern for pesky things like seat belts and if you’re lucky enough to get the middle front seat, expect to know what gear you’re in without even looking.
Micros in La Paz
Next, micros are more like conventional buses. They’re big and dirty, bellowing-out black smoke from the exhaust. Micros are not as common as the autobuses, which may be a better option.
Autobuses in La Paz
So finally, autobuses are small vans that hold about 14 squashed-up passengers. Unfortunately, at peak times, in the mornings for example, they are often full and passengers are cooped-up (sorry, that’s the last one, I promise!). To maximise the number of passengers, each row has a fold-up seat at the end. This means that in order for someone to actually get off then the person in the folding seat needs to fold it away and all of the people ahead of the departee need to get off too and then get back on. When it’s busy, this is a little comical but no-one seems to mind. It’s a good system to stop you from nodding-off in the mornings on the way to work. Maybe because of this style of travel, it’s also good manners to say hi to everyone when you get on a trufi or bus with a quick “buen dia”.
Finding a ride in La Paz
So how and where do you catch a trufi, bus or micro?
This is easier said than done. In La Paz they don’t usually have bus stops or when they do they are largely ignored. People can get on and off where-ever they please, which includes, for example, at red lights and in the middle lane in traffic jams. This means you don’t have to walk to and from the bus stop but it has its drawbacks. There’s no information about routes other than the small card in the window so you need to have done your research up-front. Usually, a driver’s helper hangs-out of the window and reels-off the destination names at a rapid speed. This can be almost completely incomprehensible. The assistant, if there is one, also takes the fares, otherwise it’s the driver’s job to multitask.
So, you managed to get onto a trufi, say, and its probably going close to where you want to go. How do you get off the thing? There are various things you can shout when you want to get off: “Me quedo” which means something like “I’m staying”, “la esquina” which means “the corner”, or “voy a bajar” which means “I’m getting off”. These all have to be shouted loud enough and in your best Bolivian accent for the driver to hear and hopefully understand.
Attempting to walk in La Paz
And what about the old fashioned, honest pedestrian? It suffices to say that the regular Rules of the Road do not apply. Red lights are just pretty colours for decoration and crossing pedestrians are potential road kill. Put simply, do not expect a vehicle to stop. Or even slow down. Bent-over old women carrying heavy bundles on their back have to sprint across the road to avoid oncoming micros. Marked zebra crossings are essentially useless in this world too but there is an unlikely saviour.
Unusual crusaders for the perambulating citizen. A herd of Pacenas dressed in fun-run style zebra costumes have recently started to take-on these motorists. They accost vehicles with flags and animated gesticulation so that the non-zebra of us can cross in safety. It’s odd but it’s fun to watch and seems to be doing the trick.
So, now we can give a new spin to the old joke, why did the chicken cross the road? Because he was helped by the zebra!
Dr. Nathan Green is a professional statistician and science journalist. He was a British Science Association media fellow and tweets as @n8thangreen. For an account of Nathan’s time in the jungle, read his post on Rurrenabaque.